The Jim Bernath Collection Featured at Astronomy Day

“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure – especially if you are collecting old space junk” – excerpt from an interview of Jim Bernath by Flash News, July 1998).

The Jim Bernath collection of astronomy and space artifacts will be featured at this year’s Astronomy Day and Science Rendezvous – Saturday 11:00am to 3:00pm May 11th at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus. Come, see, and touch meteorites, pieces of tile from the space shuttle, the iconic Canadian logo and flag produced for the Canadarm, and other space memorabilia. Parts of the collection are shown in the video below but it is a hands-on display best experienced in person at Astronomy Day!

Jim was a member of RASC since 1975 – that is 44 years. To many, he was known as “Mr. Space of Canada” and a self-described “Specialist in NASA and the Space Shuttle Programs”. Unlike many collectors, Jim didn’t keep his artifacts private but instead chose to display and share them with the public. Jim regularly traveled with his van of curiosities across Canada and the United States. He would set up displays in schools, auditoriums, and malls – wherever he could find a crowd.

At the RASC General Assembly in October of 1981, Jim was one of the recipients of the Best Centre Display. Jim was a regular in presenting his display at our annual Astronomy Day events. Adults and especially kids buzzed around his display tables and loved to hear him explain all of the details of missions and memorabilia.

2018’s International Astronomy Day event was Jim’s last time with us. His fragile health precluded him from bringing the last few pieces of his displays to the event. Instead, Jim was setup next to the tables for the Jim Bernath Collection and he spent the entire afternoon giving away autographed posters of space and the space shuttle with a line-up of children waiting to meet him. He was a rock-star and it was a great send off for him because sadly, shortly after the event, Jim was admitted to long term care and passed away a few months later.

Over the past few years, RASC Vancouver began to acquire pieces of Jim’s displays and created RASC Vancouver’s Jim Bernath Collection to carry on his legacy. It has now become an integral part of our outreach programming.

“His warm charm, wit, and his love of all things astronomical will be missed. Thank you Jim for your generous service on Earth.” – Pomponia Martinez, past-president of RASC Vancouver.

Parts of this article are taken from a tribute to Jim Bernath by Suzanna Nagy, the past president of RASC Vancouver, that will appear in a upcoming issue of the Journal of the RASC.

ISS Solar Transit on May 1st, 2019

The ISS transits the Sun and a prominenceon 2015 August 21st.
Image Credit: Thierry Legault …

Save the date solar observers! On Wednesday morning, May 1st 2019, the International Space Station is predicted to make a three-star transit of the Sun around 09:40:00 am – the time will vary somewhat based on your location.

The transit should be visible for a narrow 6.2 km slice over the lower mainland ranging from Bowen Island and proceeding south-east over Maple Ridge. The Trottier Observatory at Simon Fraser University is located within 0.16 km of the center-line of that slice.

Warning: Protect your eyes when solar observing!

Never look directly at the Sun. Always use a proper solar filter specifically designed and approved for solar observation, available at astronomy stores; that meet the requirements for ISO Standard 12312-2:2015.

The web site is a fantastic resource to get predictions of ISS solar and lunar transits. Just select your location on a map it it will provide you with ISS transit predictions over the next 10 days.

The transit on May 1st only lasts 1.26 seconds so don’t blink. Also, the ISS is fairly small at 0.41 arc-minutes – about the same angular size as Jupiter – so you will likely need a telescope, with a proper solar filter, to spot it.

More details for observing from near the Trottier Observatory at SFU from the site:

★★★ Wednesday 2019-05-01 09:41:05.64 • Solar transit

ISS angular size: 41.22″; distance: 670.38 km
Angular separation: 0.6′; azimuth: 110.3°; altitude: 35.9°
Center line distance: 0.15 km; visibility path width: 6.19 km
Transit duration: 1.29 s; transit chord length: 31.7′

R.A.: 02h 34m; Dec: +15° 08′; parallactic angle: 36.3°
ISS velocity: 24.7 ′/s (angular); 4.81 km/s (transverse)
ISS velocity: 5.60 km/s (radial); 7.38 km/s (total);
Direction of motion relative to zenith: 176.0°
Sun angular size: 31.7′46.2 times larger than the ISS

Imaging a Black Hole (effects) with a Small Telescope

Hmmm….thinking about how to image a black hole with my telescope after last week’s release of the first black hole picture. I have a relatively small Celestron EdgeHD 8 inch (200 cm) telescope and a ZWO ASI 178 cmos camera for imaging. Imagers know that matching the angular size of a target to angular resolution of a telescope/camera is an important consideration, so I did that for the b\lack hole and my equipment.

The Hamburg Observatory released a nice image of the region around the black hole and its containing galaxy, M87, that shows some angular sizes.

The region around galaxy M87 and its black hole with angular sizes
Angular sizes of the region around the galaxy M87 and its black hole vs the Moon
Image credit: Hamburg Observatory, EHT collaboration, VLBA image – C. Walker, VLA image – F. Owen, LOFAR image – F. de Gasperin

I added the full moon for some additional context but a quick summary is:

  • The full moon has an angular size of about 1,900 arc-seconds
  • The galaxy M87 has an angular size of about 400 arc-seconds in visible light, and a somewhat larger size in radio frequency observations.
  • The event horizon of the black hole is about 25 micro-arc-seconds!

My telescope/camera combination has a theoretical image scale of roughly 0.25 arc-seconds per pixel (Astronomy Tools has an online image scale calculator). So that means that the event horizon would cover

25 micro-arc-seconds / 0.25 arc-seconds/pixel = 0.0001 pixels

or one ten-thousandth of a pixel! Not likely to be visible, especially since the Earth’s atmosphere typically limits the practical resolution to about 1 to 2 arc-seconds.

Never the less, M87 is still a cool imaging target because it is possible to catch a jet of plasma shot out from the galaxy at relativistic speeds.

Image og galaxy M87 with relativistic jet
The Galaxy M87 with its relativistic jet pointing almost straight up.
Image credit: Ken Jackson, April 20th, 2019, Coquitlam, BC.

The above image was taken using a Celestron Edge HD 8 and ASI 178 camera in poor conditions – heavy light pollution in Bortle class 7 skies from my front yard in Coquitlam and a full moon rising in the east. It is just a single 30 second exposure. Still the jet can be seen pointing almost straight up from the galaxy!

The jet is thought to be powered by the black hole at the galaxy’s core and its surrounding accretion disk of material. In 1999, observations from the Hubble Space Telescope measured the speed of M87’s jet at four to six times the speed of light. This faster-than-light speed is actually an illusion caused by the relativistic velocity of the jet: the time interval between light pulses emitted by the jet is less than the actual interval due to the relativistic speed of the jet moving in the direction of the observer.

So we can’t see the black hole directly with smaller telescopes but we can see one of its cool effects.

Astronomy Day and Science Rendezvous 2019

Join us on May 11th at Simon Fraser University’s Science Rendezvous and International Astronomy Day 2019. Science Rendezvous is the largest science festival in Canada that seeks to engage the public (and especially kids!) through interactive science activities, demonstrations, and laboratory experiences. Participants can explore dozens of hands-on science activities and demonstrations that will delight all ages at the South and East hallways of the Academic Quadrangle at SFU’s Burnaby campusSaturday, May 11th from 11 am – 3 pm.

RASC activities include the Jim Bernath Meteorite Collection, several talks, Apollo rockets and mission display, solar telescope observing (weather permitting), and numerous craft and activity tables for children.

Pre-register for talks by RASC Vancouver speakers using the links below:

Talks are in the Academic Quadrangle rooms AQ 3149/AQ 3150.

More details are available from the Festival of Learning or Simon Fraser University’s event page.

Additional Details

  • Free admission to all shows, activities, talks and tours.
  • Complimentary parking offered in East Parking lot
  • Open to participants of all ages.


Simon Fraser University
8888 University Dr. , Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6 
Burnaby, V5A 1S6 CA
View on a Google Map

Hear the Resonace of Trappist 1

Trappist 1 is a pretty cool planetary system:

  • Seven planets orbiting a red dwarf star
  • Three planets in the habitable zone where liquid water may be present.
  • All the planets are in tight orbits with periods ranging from 1.5 to 19 days.
  • The name was inspired from a type of beer brewed by monks.

The seven planets in orbit around the TRAPPIST-1 could fit inside the orbit of Mercury. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I didn’t realize that all seven planets in the Trappist 1 system are in resonance where their orbital periods are related by small integer ratios. For example, for every 2 orbits of the outermost planet, the next planet inward orbits 3 times. In our own solar system, Pluto and Neptune are also in a 2:3 resonance. The Trappist 1 system has a much longer resonance chain that involves all its planets. In fact it is the longest know chain of resonant exoplanets. For every 2 orbits of the outermost planet, the more inner ones complete 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, and 24 orbits respectively.

Initially, it seemed like the orbits of the Trappist 1 planets would not be stable with some planets being flung out of the system, colliding, or becoming moons of other planets in less than a 1/2 million years. A Canadian astronomer, Daniel Tamayo, is the lead author on a new paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters that explains how this system could have formed and remained stable for over 50 million years – the maximum that they could simulate on their supercomputer – by accounting for the initial conditions when the planets formed and their subsequent drift into position.

Resonances are also key to music. Matt Russo is an astrophysics-colleague of Tamayo who is also a musician. He arbitrarily assigned the note C to the outermost planet and set notes for the other planets based on their relative orbital periods. You can listen to the Trappist 1 resonances in the video below.

Trappist 1 Planetary System Translated Into Music. Video Credit: SYSTEM Sounds

The SYSTEM Sound site also lets you make your own music using the TRAPPIST-1 planets as your instrument .

Nova Newslettter – Mar/Apr 2019

Our NOVA Newsletter for Mar-Apr 2019 is available as a pdf file. An archive of older issues can be found on our Newsletter page.

Contents of Volume 2019, Issue 2, March-April 2019:

  • Serendipitous Eclipse by J. Karl Miller
  • President’s Message by Leigh Cummings
  • Lunar Eclipse Event – Trottier Observatory SFU by Suzanna Nagy
  • Coming Together for the Love of Space by Hayley Miller
  • Youth Committee Summary by Marina Miller
  • @rascvancouver on Instagram by Hayley Miller

Vernal Equinox: Welcome to Spring 2019

The Vernal or Spring Equinox occurs today, March 20 at 2:58 pm PDT: Welcome to Spring!

Equinoxes occur at a time when the Earth is not titled either towards or away from the sun – yesterday (in Winter) the Northern Hemisphere was titled away from the sun and tomorrow it will be titled towards the sun (Spring). This corresponds to when the sun passes directly over Earth’s equator and crosses the celestial equator in the sky. You can use Stellarium to see that the sun is located in constellation Pisces and how it moves from south of the equator to north of the equator.

The sun is south of the equator one day before the equinox.
The sun crosses the equator at the equinox.
The sun is north of the equator after the equinox.

Crossing the celestial equator is important for determining right ascension – the celestial equivalent of longitude. The zero point for right ascension is defined to be the point where the sun crosses the celestial equator at the vernal equinox. This is also known as the First Point of Aires which is a mystery because the we just saw that the sun is in Pisces.

Hipparchus defined the First Point of Aries in 130 BCE when the sun was located in the constellation Aries during the spring equinox. Due to the Earth’s precession that point has been moving westward at a rate of approximately 1 degree every 72 years and is now located in Pisces – mystery solved.

Bonus: There is also a full “super” moon tonight – the last supermoon of 2019 – and the forecast is for clear skies so get out and have a look.

Messier Marathon 2019 – Now or Wait a Month?

Charles Messier was a French astronomer who compiled and published a list of nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies, which came to be known as the Messier objects. Messier was mainly hunting for comets but sometimes ran across objects that looked like comets but were subsequently disproven. Messier’s original list identified 103 such objects that comet hunters should “ignore” – seven additional entries have been added over the years, bringing the total to 110.

All the Messier Objects

A Messier Marathon is an attempt to observe all 110 objects in a single night. The best time of year to attempt a Messier Marathon is often around a new Moon in March. This weekend, March 9th&10th, is just a few days past the new Moon and the forecast for the Lower Mainland is for mostly clear skies so it provides a nice opportunity.

But some objects in Messier’s list will not be visible from latitudes above 40° north this weekend. Alan Whitman, a BC resident, has a “cover page” article in the April edition of Sky and Telescope magazine that suggests April 4th-5th, 2019 is the perfect night for a Messier Marathon from latitudes above 49° north. Even then, observing all 110 objects may not be possible.

Planning is required for a serious attempt and the Calgary RASC Centre has some good planning tips and a great planning tool. Howard Trottier recommends a book by Don Machholz as a guide to Messier Marathons.

A Celebration of Female Astronomers

Many women have contributed to our knowledge of astronomy. Here is a short list of four women astronomers from different time periods that made significant contributions.

Hypatia of Alexandria – 4th Century AD

Hypatia of Alexandria is regarded as the first woman astronomer. She lived during the late 4th, early 5th centuries. She taught mathematics, physics, and astronomy, and wrote many books about these subjects – thirteen books on algebra and another eight books on geometry.

Hypatia is known to have edited at least Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest which supported the geoentric model of the universe shown in this diagram.[

Hypatia is known to have constructed an astrolabe, an instrument used to measure the positions of the stars. She used it to calculate the positions of specific stars, and then published her data in tables in The Astronomical Canon. Sailors and astronomers used her tables for the next 1200 years.

She also edited the third book of her father’s, Commentary on the Almagest of Ptolomy. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was geocentric where the sun was thought to have revolved around the earth. In the Almagest, Ptolemy proposed a division problem for calculating the number of degrees swept out by the sun in a single day as it orbits the earth. Hypatia’s contribution is thought to be an improved method for the long division algorithms needed for such astronomical computations.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel  1750 -1848

Caroline Herschel was a German astronomer and the younger sister of the astronomer William Herschel. She is best known for the discovery of several comets, including the periodic comet 35P/Herschel–Rigollet, which bears her name.

This image of Comet Herschel-Rigollet was obtained in August 11939. Copyright © 2010-2015 Hamburger Sternwarte, Fachbereich Physik, MIN-Fakultät, Universität Hamburg.

She was the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society. The King of Prussia presented her with a Gold Medal for Science on the occasion of her 96th birthday.

She independently co-discovered the galaxy M110 – this galaxy is a companion to the Andromeda galaxy M32 and was included in a sketch of M32 by Charles Messier but Messier did not include M110 in his original list. The suggestion to assign M110 a Messier number was not made until 1967.

Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin 1900 – 1979

Cecilia Payne was a British-born American astrophysicist who proposed in her 1925 doctoral thesis that stars were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. In analyzing spectral absorption lines, she found that silicon, carbon, and other common metals seen in the Sun’s spectrum were present in about the same relative amounts as on Earth, in agreement with the accepted belief of the time. However, she found that helium and hydrogen were vastly more abundant – by a factor of about one million for hydrogen.

The sun’s visible absorption spectrum. Image credit: Rolf A. F. Witzsche

The astronomer Henry Norris Russell  convinced Payne to initially describe her results as “spurious” because the current scientific consensus was that the elemental composition of the Sun and the Earth were similar. In 1914, he had written:

The agreement of the solar and terrestrial lists is such as to confirm very strongly Rowland’s opinion that, if the Earth’s crust should be raised to the temperature of the Sun’s atmosphere, it would give a very similar absorption spectrum. The spectra of the Sun and other stars were similar, so it appeared that the relative abundance of elements in the universe was like that in Earth’s crust.[

A few years later, the astronomer Otto Struve described her work as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”. Russell, himself, ultimately realized she was correct and admiringly acknowledged Payne’s earlier work and discovery; but nevertheless, he is often credited for the conclusions she reached.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell 1943 –

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was awarded a $3-million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2018. The prize committee not only acknowledges her discovery of the weird, fast-spinning stellar corpses known as pulsars but also her “lifetime of inspiring scientific leadership.” The discovery of pulsars was recognized by the award of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, but despite the fact that she was the first to observe a pulsar, Bell Burnell was not one of the recipients of the prize – a point of controversy since then. But Bell Burnnell was not dismayed at the lack of recognition, saying instead

I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not!

In 1967, Bell Burnell was working with Anthony Hewish, an astronomer at Cambridge who wanted to find more quasars and needed a new radio telescope to do so. Bell Burnell helped build the radio telescope and after it was built, she was left as the first person to run the telescope. During the first six months, she discovered over 100 quasars but the real breakthrough first appeared on August 6, 1967. She noted an “scruff” that she later found appeared over and over again in the same part of the sky. Higher-speed recordings made in November 1967 revealed that Bell Burnell had captured a repeating string of radio pulses spaced a bit more than a second apart that were unlike anything seen before. Temporarily dubbed “Little Green Man 1” (LGM-1) the source, which is now known as PSR B1919+21,was identified after several years as a rapidly rotating neutron star.

Pulsar PSR B1509-58 – Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO (X-Ray); NASA/JPL-Caltech

Rotating neutron stars with regular rotational periods are called “pulsars” because the produce pulses of radio waves with a very precise intervals ranging from milliseconds to seconds. The precise periods of pulsars makes them very useful tools. They were used to indirectly confirm the existence of gravitational radiation. the first exo-planets were discovered around a pulsar,  and they can rival atomic clocks in their accuracy in keeping time.